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Morrison’s departure will help Liberals ‘move on’ but Nationals can’t ‘move on’ until Barnaby does

  • Written by Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

Scott Morrison will say his farewell to parliament the week after next. This timing happens to follow neatly Monday’s final episode in the ABC’s Nemesis series, in which some Coalition figures excoriated their former leader and Morrison defended his record.

For the Liberals, Morrison’s departure is a significant symbolic “moving on” moment. It’s not that he has had any influence, or been disruptive, since the election. But even though he’s been hardly noticed publicly, his presence in the parliamentary party has been a reminder of all that went wrong last term.

The Coalition Morrison is exiting is a mixed bunch, in terms of performance, illustrated by the first weeks of this year.

The opposition could not have avoided being outfoxed by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s bold reworking of the tax cuts. But it could have prevented the Liberals’ deputy leader, Sussan Ley, impulsively suggesting a Dutton government would roll back the tax cuts, which a nanosecond of thought would have told her would never happen. It was typical of Ley, and a bone Labor hasn’t stopped chewing.

On the other hand, the row over the ex-detainees – released by the government from immigration detention after a High Court decision last year – has shown how an opposition working effectively can have a minister squirming.

The Liberals used material from this week’s Senate estimates hearing to pound Immigration Minister Andrew Giles in the House of Representatives. Although the issue probably doesn’t have its pre-Christmas resonance with the public, the operation reminded that Liberal Senator James Paterson is one of the opposition’s best-performing frontbenchers. Paterson is on top of a broad national security brief and (regardless of whether you agree with him or not) conveys his points effectively in media interviews.

In contrast, the shadow treasurer, Angus Taylor, still struggles to cut through. Despite performing better than last year, Taylor is unable to land a blow on Treasurer Jim Chalmers. Given the centrality of the economic debate, this is a serious problem for Peter Dutton.

Taylor is lucky there’s no colleague stalking for his job. Those with long memories will recall Julie Bishop’s fate as shadow treasurer under Malcolm Turnbull. When she floundered, Joe Hockey was there coveting her post and inevitably she had to agree to move.

Finance spokeswoman Jane Hume is diligent, prominent in the media and improving. She does best when she limits the gratuitous political attacks.

Michael Sukkar, shadow minister for housing, seems largely missing in action on the red-hot issue of housing, a crucial battleground for the election. The opposition shouldn’t just be more active in the day-to-day debate – it should be releasing an alternative policy sooner rather than later. A comprehensive housing policy should logically be at the core of an agenda for the “aspirationals” the Liberals like to talk about.

We don’t hear as much as we should on education from spokeswoman Sarah Henderson. While education is often considered a “Labor” issue, poor results and declining retention rates at school level and key issues facing higher education are meaty areas for debate.

Andrew Hastie is well qualified on defence but not as much to the fore as might be expected. Prominent in the conservative wing of the Liberal Party, Hastie also needs to broaden his profile for the future.

Anne Ruston could make more of her health and aged care remit. There are many questions around the post-pandemic management of COVID, and the long-term sustainability of Medicare. Ruston will soon have a ready-made issue in aged care, when the government finally releases the report it is sitting on, canvassing ways forward for the sector’s financing. The Howard, Hawke and Morrison governments all found aged care perilous.

Among the Nationals, their Senate leader, Bridget McKenzie, has proved very effective this term, notably on Qantas and Qatar Airways.

Jacinta Price was a highly successful “no” campaigner in the referendum, but the harder test will be whether she can find some credible positive answers for improving Indigenous people’s conditions. Her proposed audit of spending might have some merit, but it falls short as a policy.

Dutton needs to reshuffle his frontbench ASAP. He hasn’t even filled the vacancy left by last year’s resignation from parliament of the Robodebt-tainted Stuart Robert, who was shadow assistant treasurer. Marise Payne’s departure left vacant the spot of shadow cabinet secretary.

The frontbench certainly would benefit from some new talent. Constraints such as state representations complicate things, but if merit were the criterion, Zoe McKenzie and Keith Wolahan, both Victorians, are deserving.

Julian Leeser, who stepped down to the backbench to campaign for “yes” in the referendum, now appears to have less chance of a return in a reshuffle than was initially thought. That’s unfortunate, because restoring him as shadow attorney-general would be sensible. Having Michaelia Cash in that job as well as workplace relations is overload on steroids.

In the longer term, the Coalition needs a refresh of talent at the 2025 election. Former minister Linda Reynolds (now on the backbench) announced this week she was not recontesting. Neither is junior frontbencher Nola Marino.

One-time Morrison henchman Alex Hawke (who has preselection) would be among those who don’t have much to contribute in another term. Dutton didn’t put Hawke on his frontbench.

Which brings us to Barnaby Joyce, whose future is a talking point after he was videoed sprawled on a Canberra street following too many drinks that he said interfered with his medication.

Both Dutton and the Nationals’ leader, David Littleproud, have advised Joyce he should take personal leave, Littleproud citing he had “family circumstances”, beyond the first explanation for his behaviour. Despite the advice, Joyce remained in parliament for the rest of this week. The pertinent question, however, is whether Joyce should run for another term.

Once hailed as a great “retail” politician, Joyce at the 2022 election was considered a retail negative in many Liberal seats. Dutton’s priority mightn’t be the recapture of “teal” seats – he’s concentrating on outer suburbia – but he doesn’t want a repeat of the perceived damage Joyce did last time.

Joyce may want to run again, but surely he shouldn’t. While he is in parliament, the Nationals will remain a tinderbox (even though they manage to hold their seats). The party, once known for its unity and discipline, won’t move on until Joyce moves on.

Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

Read more https://theconversation.com/grattan-on-friday-morrisons-departure-will-help-liberals-move-on-but-nationals-cant-move-on-until-barnaby-does-223639